Raegan Swanson is the Executive Director at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (CLGA) located in Toronto, Ontario. Her professional background includes Library and Archives Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute, and Archival Advisor for the Council of Archives New Brunswick. Raegan is also currently earning her PhD on the topic of community archives in Aboriginal and Inuit communities.
This interview was conducted in the spring of 2017 by current A&A Steering Committee member Kira Baker.
Can you tell us about the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (CLGA) and how the archives began?
The CLGA was founded in Toronto in 1973 and was formed out of The Body Politic, which was a magazine publication that came out of the gay liberation movement in Canada. While the group collected photographs and did writing for the magazine they realised that they had the start of an archives. It was basically just a filing cabinet in the main office, and it started with material from that era. What happened however, was there was a police raid so they decided that, for the protection of the collection and so the police would not be able to take any more boxes, they would become a charity and in 1981 they formally became the Canadian Gay Archives (there have been a few name variations over the years). The collection grew from there, it started out being Toronto-centric but it quickly became more than just Toronto and people from across Canada started donating material. We’ve never been a traditional archive and we have a very large object collection that has always been considered an archival collection: we’ve got a t-shirt collection, a matchbook collection, button pin collections, various types of costume and clothing, lots of photographs, all kinds of AV material everything from reel-to-reel to born digital, art, as well as a reference library. Most of the material dates from the 1970s onward, there are exceptions though, we have one journal in particular that is probably our oldest item, dated from about 1911.
You came to the archives in 2016 as Executive Director, please share with us your professional background and describe your role here at CLGA
I was a history student at College université de Saint-Boniface in Manitoba and it was actually Terry Cook and Tom Nesmith who convinced me to be an archivist. One day they pulled a few of us out of class and talked with us about how we would could make good archivists. I graduated from the University of Toronto’s iSchool in 2011 and I was fortunate to get a position at Library and Archives Canada right out of school. It was mostly a co-op role but it allowed me to transition into a federal position and I became the digital archivist for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [on Canada’s former residential school system for First Nations, Métis and Inuit children and youth] where I was responsible for the statements given by survivors, former staff, and intergenerational survivors as well as the members of the general public that were made through the TRC. After that position I moved into Northern Quebec and lived in Oujé-Bougoumou, which is a Cree village of around 500 people and I lived up there for a couple of years, starting the archives from the ground up – building shelving, created policy and so on. After that I did a brief stint as the Archival Advisor for the provincial Council of Archives New Brunswick. So it has been a roundabout way to get back to the CLGA because I was a student volunteer here in 2010-2011!
What have you been doing here the last 6 months as Executive Director?
Acclimating. Figuring out where things stand. Rebecka Sheffield, our last Executive Director, was here for a short period and she was the first archivist to be hired. Before that, the Executive Director role was someone who managed the house, paid the bills, helped with fundraising. So there are a lot of policies and procedures that need to be updated, some of which hasn’t been touched since the 1990s, everything from updating the reading room rules to writing an HR policy because now we actually have more than one staff member. So far my work has mostly been administrative although I try to sneak in some archival activities too. A lot has changed over time for the CLGA, but there are volunteers who have been here throughout that time, so, for me, [the last six months] has been understanding what has been done, who usually does what, and finding my role among the volunteers because they have been the ones who have kept this place going over the past 40 plus years.
Records held at the CLGA house
What are the collecting practices of the CLGA? How have they changed over those 40 years?
We have more space now which means that we are able to take more material. We only moved into this space (at 34 Isabella Street) in 2009. Previously, the archives had been in rented office space which doesn’t provide many options for storage and reading room configuration. Before, everything was one large space and researchers were looking at records right next to the stacks. So things have changed in a couple of ways: 1) more people know about us and we are getting more material, in part too because of the longevity of the CLGA, and 2) I would say the collection practices has expanded from the initial 1970s activism roots to showing and representing gay life as it exists in Canada. For example, material first collected included The Body Politic and the Right to Privacy Committee and other entities rallying around the cause [of gay rights], and we have tons of material related to the bathhouse raids because it was a pivotal moment in Toronto. Additionally, we now also have more material on marriage, and we recently acquired records from the LGBTQ Parenting Network which dealt with families and adoption. So how the transition in society has changed as has also changed the types of record materials coming in.
And so, records came to the archives through word of mouth?
Yes. Folks already a part of the magazine [The Body Politic] and other groups were also the volunteers at the archives and it was their records and the records of their friends who were the main donors. The community was initially very small, even though Toronto, having one of the largest queer communities in Canada so there were plenty of people in the general LGBT+ community – but it wasn’t necessarily that the CLGA was taking in all the records, we were getting what we could manage at the time. There has not been much effort to seek out and ask people for their records and that has kind of been a continued practice overall. Materials were donated when volunteers specifically asked someone to do so or they had heard of the CLGA by word of mouth…unless you knew somebody, or knew somebody who knew somebody, that was how records were acquired.
Space is another factor and has always been what we could afford. The CLGA often shared space with other groups and there were years when we couldn’t afford office space at all. Working with what you have limits what record collections come in, the volunteers to manage those records, and accommodating researchers. The CLGA has grown substantially since moving into this current space, which also saw the number of volunteers go up. We now have a full-time Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator which has meant double the number of volunteers. It is interesting to see how the body of volunteers has shaped the organization as well as the collections.
Describe the administrative structure of CLGA and how this corresponds to day to day decision making
There is an Operations Committee that is responsible for the archival side of running the CLGA: looking after acquisitions, appraisal, arrangement and descriptions, ordering supplies etc. This Committee used to be the CLGA’s main hub but there is currently also a Board of Directors and ten other Committees for fundraising, curatorial projects, communications and other jobs all made up of volunteers. To clarify, those on the Operations Committee carrying out archival tasks, it’s not to say that those volunteers do not have archival training – they just have never been paid CLGA archival staff. For instance, one volunteer is an archivist at the University of Toronto who has been contributing his expertise to the Operations Committee for the last 39 years.
Raegan showing an album from the Rupert Raj collection
Tell us about the recent Diversity Survey put out by the CLGA and the reasons behind going to members for feedback
The Diversity Survey project started around 2015-2016, the impetus in part being from having more volunteers coming in to work with the archival collections but not seeing themselves represented here as part of the local community and, in turn, the CLGA realizing the limitations of what we haven’t been able to collect. One example of this is that, there were women involved in the creation of the CLGA, but most of our older volunteers are men. There was also some trans material collected, but whether or not it is representative of a larger trans community – well, we are actively working towards incorporating those record collections now. I think the CLGA will be examining the organization’s vision, mandate, and even our name over the next year while we are in the middle of strategic planning. From what our volunteers and the community has told us [through the Diversity Survey], we have not been as diverse in our collecting as we need to be.
The Diversity Survey showed us a lot about our organization. Survey results made clear that men thought we handled diversity better than women respondents – and I think that says a lot. What you know and what you care about will affect how and what you choose to collect. The CLGA was an organization primarily started by cis gay white men, thus impacting what material was collected. Not to say that CLGA wasn’t collecting other community information at all, but it definitely impacted how much material from those communities ended up at the CLGA. For example, you could be aware “X” event was happening but if you didn’t attend then you might not be able to pick up a poster from that event. So, you are limited by individual personal experiences and that is something we can see in the collection. There is a certain amount of privilege that comes with being a man, even a gay man, and having conversations about privilege are not easy, especially when it is with people who have been discriminated against. Trying to balance the progressive nature of a changing community without discounting the work done by past activists is difficult.
Right now, the CLGA team is on board with addressing that there are gaps in the collection and tackling how we are going to handle it. To me, unless people understand that we are going to respect their records and that we are a safe place to put them, then they are in the right to not be willing to place their records in our custody. We are actively trying to ensure we both collect diverse materials and promote their accessibility. I am currently processing a collection of Rupert Raj, a trans writer and activist. These records had been accessioned, but, you must show that it matters with arrange and describe. We will soon start highlighting this and other trans collections through our online platform. We are a very large group of LGBTQ2+ and allies who have come together to formulate and care for the archives, keep the organization running, and make the material available to the public.
A large portrait painting from the CLGA collection
What collections would you like to see, or, what is on your wish list?
Oh, we do have a list! Organizations, people, clubs, as well as books for our reference library. Working with other organizations in the local community is important, especially since sometimes distinct groups or projects can have short lifespans. We want to make sure that we can gather those records before those groups might be swallowed up by larger organizations.
We also have records of artists, playwrights, and musicians showing the arts. I like the way that art tends to play so directly into activism and I would like more of that especially since it is such a great visual and way of representing challenges and plays into our curatorial initiatives as well. We’ve also started collecting material that has been inspired by our collection. Artists have come in to do research and then they have created artwork based on our records. There is art upstairs that is copies of our archival collection – it has been turned into wallpaper.
Now, is that a record or art?
We kept pieces [of the wallpaper] as records! But it’s on our walls too. Not at all meta, right?
It’s interesting to see how people are interacting and using the material because I think it will also influence what we collect. The types of researchers coming in aren’t all academic, there is a lot of artistic investigation. Last year, there was a play about the Body Politic and because we also rent some of our building space, Sky Gilbert, the playwright, was doing rehearsals on our third floor. Because we are a community space, the way people interact with the Archives, what kinds of relationships and what is generated here at CLGA will also influence the archival materials that come to stay.